By Kimberly Zapata
It was exactly one week before Thanksgiving when the call came in. While others were finalizing their grocery lists for the “big haul” that Sunday, we were making final arrangements. As others were laying out outfits and trying to decide what would look best — metallics, leggings, or stirrup pants, in a seasonal color of course — we were laying out his ties, his suits, and his dress shirts. As others began their pre-holiday preparations — began cleaning rooms, baking pies, and making room for that frozen bird in the back of their fridge — we were making a place for my father in the already frozen ground.
I don’t recall much about that Thanksgiving. Things were a blur from the moment we learned of his death until well after Christmas. A blur of strange and strained hugs — hugs which felt too big and too consuming — and stranger conversations. But I do recall that this was the first, and only, Thanksgiving of my childhood not hosted in my own house. (We lived out-of-state for many years, so with no family around, my Thanksgiving’s were always small, always intimate, and always prepared by my mother.) That day, at my Aunt’s house in I-don’t-know-where New Jersey was the first time we feasted at a large table: the kind you see in movies, set with gaudy gold napkin rings and large, crystal wine goblets. I remember laughing and feeling bad about it. I remember playing with my cousin’s and feeling bad about it. And I remember taking my first sip of wine…and not feeling anything at all. But that is where my memory fails me. That is where that day, much like that season, fades away.
But there is one other moment in that week which stands out. One other moment which I cannot seem to forget, and that is when people appeared — strangers appeared — with a delivery which reminded me what the season, and what life, was all about.
You see, a day or two before that Thanksgiving — or a day or two after, I cannot recall — people showed up. People whose faces I did not know, and whose names I will never find out. They were “from the church,” or so they said, and they had heard about my father’s passing. They had learned it was a sudden death and that he was only 39. They had learned that my 42-year-old mother was now a widow, a widow with two young children. And so they came, with yellow Shop-Rite bags, used Dollar Store bags and drugstore bags filled for a feast. They came with canned vegetables, pop and bake rolls, and a box of Betty Crocker cake mix. They came with a frozen turkey, Stove-Top stuffing, and — my favorite — jellied cranberry sauce (the kind that comes out in the shape of the can and is served by the slice instead of the spoonful).
They came for no other reason than to help, to offer hope, and to give us a bit of happiness.
To this day I have no idea how this made my mother feel. I assume she was grateful, but it is a conversation we have never had. For some reason, it is a conversation I have never initiated.
As for me, at 12-years-old the true meaning of this offer was lost. Sure, I was excited for the cake and aforementioned cranberry sauce, but I was also angry. I couldn’t comprehend why everyone was bringing us food.
My father died and you are trying to console me with sugar and marinara sauce? My father DIED! Why won’t everyone just leave us alone?
But today the greater meaning of their gesture couldn’t be more clear. You see, Thanksgiving isn’t about a meal. It isn’t about where you eat or even what you do. It is about expressing gratitude, and giving thanks. (I know this seems obvious, but stay with me here.) It is day centered around love and compassion and giving — not gifts or any tangible things, but giving of the heart and soul. Of giving in food and literal and figurative fulfillment. And while it has shifted over the years, thanks to consumerism and “early bird” Black Friday specials (ehem, bullshit), the true meaning is still there if we look for it, if we work toward it, and if we keep it alive.
My family and I were the recipients of charity that year. We were the recipients not only of food but of love: selfless, no-strings-attached love. And it is a type of a love I am only now coming to truly appreciate. It is a type of love I hope to instill in my daughter not only at the holidays but year-round.
To learn how you can volunteer and give back — not only on Thanksgiving but everyday — visit VolunteerMatch.org.